Thursday, December 29, 2005

It's Time - Christmas 2/New Year's

The calendar offers interesting options this year for one who preaches. Christmas 2 holds this rich story of Simeon and Annna - one that fits the liturgical season with unique specificity this year.

For a Methodist, though, how can I ignore what the "new year" has meant to our movement?

And while the calendar gives opportunity on this front, Epiphany is going to be truncated, to say nothing of Baptism of the Lord. There's significant theological "stuff" to mark the time of a new year over the next two weeks. Getting to it all with integrity is a challenge.

But for January 1, Christmas 2, I'm going to lean most heavily on that text from which comes the line most commonly used by those who observe The Daily Office's evening setting - the nunc dimittis.

Keep watch here as I build some thoughts for the preaching moment this Sunday. In the meantime, a day or two more with family in these days of Christmas.

The following is the sum of outlined thoughts that sprung more extended thoughts for January 1. I am grateful for Daniel B. Clendenin's site from which the concise thoughts of the desert monastics was found. Sometimes I carry this much into pulpit, other times more, often times much less.

What I'm looking for when I take less printed work into the preaching moment are "triggers" that will kick off the moves that I've worked out internally.

When it works, it's magic.
When it doesn't, well, crash and burn comes to mind.
Regardless, I take to heart that prayer that Michael Williams prays before he preaches (and one I pray to myself even as I offer the routine pre-sermon prayer)

Lord, if I screw this up, please make something of it anyway. Amen.

It’s Time
Christmas 1 Luke 2.22-40

New Year – Christmas
Reflection upon what’s been
Projection of what’s to be.

The presentation in the Temple captures all this and declares that to which we too often give little attention – the “now” of any moment.

For Simeon and Anna – It’s time for they have seen the Messiah – and upon seeing him they declare, in effect, “it’s time.” That’s what the nunc dimittis is.

Time to move on
Time to die
Time for Redemption

Why? Because the promises of God have been and are being fulfilled in this very moment.

And they saw him because they believed they would.
Believing is Seeing

The new year is a “it’s time” opportunity. Too often reduced to "resolutions" we know we won't keep, why can't we look upon the new year as a new claim of spiritual disciplines. And today, we call upon the wisdom of those who’ve gone before to guide our way - the desert monastics.

1. Never stop starting over: "Abba Poeman said regarding Abba Prin that every day he made a new beginning." "My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start" (Arsenios, 5th century).

2. Live intentionally, not aimlessly: "Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort" (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century).

3. Pray simply, not stupidly: "Often when I have prayed I have asked for what I thought was good, and persisted in my petition, stupidly importuning the will of God, and not leaving it to Him to arrange things as He knows is best for me. But when I have obtained what I asked for, I have been very sorry that I did not ask for the will of God to be done; because the thing turned out not to be as I had thought" (Evagrios the Solitary, 4th century). Abba Macarius said, "It is enough to say, 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer, say: 'Lord, help!'"

4. Renounce all self-justification: According to John the Dwarf, "We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification."

5. Stop judging others: "The monk, says Moses, must never judge his neighbor at all in any way whatever." "They said of Abba Macarius that just as God protects the world, so Abba Macarius would cover the faults he saw, as though he did not see them, and those he heard, as though he did not hear them."

6. Celebrate theological modesty: "St. John Chrysostom says that we do not know wholly even what is given in part, but know only a part of a part" (St. Peter of Damaskos, 12th century).

7. Be ruthlessly realistic: "Saint Anthony said to Poemen, 'expect trials and temptations until your last breath.'" "I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety...Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety" (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century).

8. Read the obituaries: "When the death of Arsenius drew near, the brothers saw him weeping and asked, 'Truly, Father, are you afraid?' 'Indeed,' he answered them, 'the fear which is mine this hour has been with me ever since I became a monk.'" "At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life" (St. Gregory of Sinai, 13th century).

And today, as we approach the Table, what do you see? Could it be the one Simeon and Anna saw so long ago?

Could it be? It is – Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s time.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A "Word" If You Please - Christmas Day

The following is among the scribbled notes I'll carry into this morning's Christmas service.

It is outline in nature with a few key phrases to trigger some extended thought.

The order of the day, however, is brevity. Otherwise, my kids will revolt!

There are some texts on some occasions that are not to be "preached." They are the sermon - the homiletical task is to avoid getting in the way.

A "Word" If You Please
Christmas Day 2005
John 1.1-14

In the beginning was the "word," the Logos.

The Feast of the Nativity cannot come apart from the realities of the world into which the Christ is born.

Even as angels sang and shepherds kept watch there were principalities and powers at work to divide, conquer, destroy. The very census that demanded Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem in the first place was a means for Rome to keep control of it's territory.

Neither can we ignore the realities of our day even as we proclaim "Joy to the World." For such a word breaks into the principalities and powers that perpetuate hatred, division, war and puts them on notice "the Lord is come, let earth receive her King." To do so is to pervert the radical news of Christmas and reduce it to sentimentality thereby robbing it of the scandal that it is.

But the Nativity reminds us that God does not shirk from the redemption of the world in the face the turmoil we can bring upon ourselves. To the contrary, despite our capacity to make a mockery of all things Sacred, and maybe because of it, God comes and breaks out camp right in the middle of it all and dares us not to notice.

Even more than that Christmas is that "outward and visible sign" of what has always been true that we have never been apart from God's presence, we never will be and that

3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1.3-5

When we turned away and our loved failed, your love remained steadfast. The Eucharistic Prayer

While invitations are freely given to be people of the light, to live the good news, I'm wondering now if Christmas is that last best kept secret to turn our lives into something different than they've been.

As the angels told the shepherds, so to, are we told, to come and see this thing that has taken place.

And so, today, sisters and brothers, a "word" if you please.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 -->who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 -->And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. John 1-12-14

Epilogue to "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Only You Can Keep The Chi in Xmas

A few thoughts in these concluding days of Advent - -

For all those folks getting their knickers in a bunch over Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas or whatever - get over it.

C'mon, are their any Jeffersonians out there?




Thomas was so right on this point - there is to be a wall that separates church and state.

That does not mean that people who represent the state can't be religious.

And neither does that mean that the church cannot be involved in matters of the state.

It means there is no "state religion." Our founders knew something about that.

And you know, I'm really o.k. with that.

But somewhere we've lost our way on this point.

And in response to "not wanting to offend" anyone, we do the worst possible thing - we strip the distinctiveness of religious expression into a warm tub of emotion and use words like "the real meaning of the season is giving," or we'll talk about spirit of the season. Or, we'll talk about Happy Holidays.

Well, that's not what the season is about.

If it's Hanukkah we're talking about it is distinct.

It's the "Festival of Lights".

These days are significant for our Jewish sisters and brothers.

If Christians would learn the story of God's provision in the scarcity of the moment, of one day's worth of oil that burned eight affirming God's presence in the face of one's adversaries, we might find some resonant points to our own faith experience.

Do I have to have a nativity scene out on the court square or else Christmas has gone straight to the dogs? No.

Can't there be a place for multi-faith observances of religious tradition? Yes.

And there is.

It begins in our homes and in our houses of worship.

Look, I'm Christian.

Christmas, beyond the cultural trappings that too often enslave me, means something distinctive to me.

Christ is born.

God is with us.

"The Way out of no way" has a story, and it begins in Bethlehem.

What I feel about it is irrelevant.

It is what it is.

If I count myself Christian, I have a bounden duty (that should be matched with my joyful willingness) to proclaim "Gloria in excelsis Deo!"

Where should I be on Christmas Day? Among other places, with my family of faith, in my Church, giving thanks to God for the collision of the Divine with a broken world.

It's far too easy to criticize mega-Churches right now who are not worshipping this Christmas because the holiday falls on the Lord's day.

Yes, it's poor form.

Yes, it shows that convenience yet again trumps faithfulness.

Yes, it shows the incongruity of those congregations who fancy themselves leaders of the 21st century Church by not taking the moment to lead.

And yes, I have to live with the "Dad, do we have to go to Church on Christmas Day?" pleas from my "preacher's kid" children who'd prefer to stay home and play with their gifts, but know that their dad never cancels church on Sunday - ever.

But what this little upset brings into high relief for me, and offers conviction for far too many of us - is that we who are up on our high horses who are worshipping on 12/25/05, but didn't on Christmas Day in 04 and won't in 06 need to shut up in our criticism of others.

The question isn't whether or not we should worship on Christmas Day in 05 because it's a Sunday - but whether we should be worshipping every Christmas Day because it's Christmas Day!

If I'm not willing to honor the day wherever it falls on the calendar, then I really have no right to complain about how we've let Christmas go away.

If Christmas goes away, it's only because those of us charged to observe it let it happen.

And make no mistake, this is not about whether or not a nativity scene can be displayed on the court square.

That's a cop out. It's not the job of the state to keep Christmas "real" for me.

If our varied communities of faith truly honored the day, we wouldn't need to get upset about public nativity scene displays being removed. The culture, the country, is not charged with obligations to the One whose name is claimed.

We who confess Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, are.

It's just that simple.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Imagine - Advent 3/4

The following was preached Advent 3, December 11. "The Magnificat" was an alternate text for the day instead of Psalm 126. "The Annunciation" is the text for Advent 4. However, my choir is singing the Advent 4 service, and this would be my last shot at preaching until Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Over my years, I have come to develop a subtle Mariology that convinces me that Protestants need to embrace her differently. Truth is, most Protestants don't embrace her at all - she is little more than the conduit through whom their Savior is born.

Luke 1.26-36, 46-55

Luke 1.26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1.46-55
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

This reading from Luke 1 contains two different episodes, each of which has a particular name that would be familiar to you during this time of year.

The story of the visitation of the angel Gabriel to Mary to deliver the news of what is to happen to her is called, in church-speak, “The Annunciation.”

After that, and during her visit with Elizabeth, and Mary breaks forth in song – that passage is called “the Magnificat.”

It hearkens words of proclamation, exclamation – magnifying the One who is making possible all this is about to take place.

In a word, “The Magnificat” is magnificent.

And interestingly enough, within “The Magnificat” you find the bedrock of what would be Jesus’ theology in his own preaching.

We know of Jesus as God’s child, to be sure, but a lot of his theology, by God through her, came from mama.

Listen –

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;. . .
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Can’t you hear Jesus saying words like this when offering some of the most confrontational language you can imagine toward the religious and political elite of his time?

Yes, Mary has a role to play in the story of Jesus beyond his birth. She lays the groundwork in him for all that will come thereafter.

What’s most interesting to me about Luke 1 and 2 is that these words, in too much of Church tradition, have become a litmus test as to whether or not we really believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is.

I actually know of one United Methodist Church who will interview its potential clergy (something they’re not supposed to do) and ask them if they believe in the virgin birth (in the way they think you're supposed to believe in it) before you’re even allowed to be considered among the clergy "good enough" to serve that congregation.

Needless to say, I ain't a'goin.'

It’s interesting what’s happened to the Church over the years, how we’ve locked into “you’ve got to believe this” in order to have your faith validated, and not just believe it happened, believe it happened exactly the way the Scriptures indicate it happened (at least from a literal perspective).

This week, as I’ve lived with these texts, and read, prayed, studied, thought a bit, ...what I’m determining about these readings, perhaps about the whole of the Scripture, is that too much of the church suffers from a lack of imagination.

We are so “fact” based, and we like it that way.

We want to know what happened –

How it happened –

And we associate belief or opinion about someone or something based upon what the facts seem to indicate.

We are so enlightened, and the way we approach the Scriptures and the way we approach virtually everything in life is based no longer on imagination, but on that old saying -

That says it - That seals it - I believe it - That’s it.

Friends, this book, the Bible, is a book of imagination.

But that does not mean it’s not true.

It’s book of remarkable story. Look at the stories that are found in the Scripture.

Holy Imagination.

God inspired imaginations of the people telling something of God’s character, of God’s persistent love for God’s people, of God’s deepest desire to be in Communion with us.

And yet, we want to reduce it to “you’ve got believe it because it says it.”

What happens when we introduce other translations into the mix? And the words are not exactly the same?

I guess that’s when we fall back to the “authorized” version of the Bible. How arrogant of those to mandate a version of the Bible based upon the desires of a political figure in 1600’s England.

Wasn’t the first time politics manipulated religion. It’s fairly clear in our day that it won’t be the last.

But let’s not get other translations involved, it makes the whole case a little fuzzy.

Use your imagination people.

Because where there is no imagination, there is no faith.

And make no mistake about it, this whole "intelligent design" business that's going on in schools these days is a joke.

"Intelligent design" is based on fear and not on facts, and certainly not on faith.

Fear of imagination.

This season is about imagination. God gifted imagination.

In fact, if Advent can do anything else, maybe it can rekindle the imaginations that we have for too long shunned as beneath us, incapable of sustaining us, whatever it is we do that allows our imaginations to die,

Perhaps the fires that burn around the Advent wreath . . .

Perhaps the fires that burn as we stand and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” on Christmas Eve might inspire the imaginations of our hearts to see God doing far more than we ever thought God could—

With us.

With the Church.

With the world.

Could it be, if we’d just imagine, that the stories that we find the Scripture don’t need critique as to their historic veracity in order to "believe" them, we see the truth that lives in them as they tell us the remarkable story of the God who comes to us, among us, as Tex Sample is fond of saying, the God who “pitches tent” to dwell right where we are.

And God chooses, in this imagining time, of all people, a poor girl. Whatever her sexual history is in this story, it can’t be as miraculous as the reality that God chooses to reveal God’s self, “Emmanuel” through a peasant girl.

Among the most powerless of people, even she magnifies the Lord. Even she, at the visitation, asks, “how can this be?” In the words of the angel she finds her answer, “for nothing will be impossible with God.”

And upon her hearing that, she responds with confidence, “let it be with me according to your word.”

Yea, we really are fixated on detail, upon fact. We are children of the computer age, are we not.

How is it that the word “data” is common in our vocabulary, but words of imagination are far too scarce? What’s wrong with us?

The sum total of our life these days, our communication, our entertainment, our correspondence, our financial information, is basically nothing but varying sequences of 0’s and 1’s. That’s all that it is. Yet we are completely beholden to it.

It’s just so technical.

But there’s nothing technical about the coming of the Christ.


Imagine God loving you enough to desire to be in communion with you.

Imagine God loving you enough to show you how to bridge those gaps in your heart, life and relationships that you’ve thought were too wide to cross.

Imagine God articulating a world in which those whose voices have been squashed, are the ones through whom God’s truth are first revealed.

Imagine God, through a peasant girl, telling us, not that God will do these things, but is doing these things.

And if you approach the world with some imagination, I believe we’ve have far fewer problems.

If we approached the world with more imagination, we wouldn’t have denominations threatening to beat each other up or split over issues that we just don’t understand or that scare us.

If we just had more imagination, maybe we’d find ways to resolve conflict other than the way we always seem to go back to when seeking to settle our geo-political disputes.

Maybe, if we’d imagine.

25 years ago, this past week, those of us of a particular generation know what anniversary occurred. And as I was living into this text this week, I picked up the guitar and played wondering if I should do it here and now, and the answer is, yes.

from "Imagine" by
John Lennon
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you'll join us,
And the world will live as one.
God is coming.



Saturday, December 10, 2005

Chapter and Verse

Back before "The West Wing" jumped the shark, and while Aaron Sorkin wrote every word the cast uttered, it was, without question, the best written and acted show on television, maybe ever. Even now I don't miss it, and sometimes it recaptures some of the umph of it's early days. But mostly, I watch it now in appreciation for how great it was then.

I was remembering this episode about Pres. Bartlet's encounter with a right wing radio host, who attended a White House function. Given the ferment of our time, it seemed something worth remembering. Because if we're going to go the route of chapter and verse to prove our points, let the following serve a cautionary note.

Thank God for Google where the dialogue was found.

Let the following simmer in the consciousness of your thoughts. Maybe in moments like these, the arts will reveal the greater truths we have too hard a time talking about.

From the episode - "Midterms"

Setting - at a White House reception for media folks, the President comes in with the event already in progress. As the President enters, all stand, per protocol, except for Dr. Jenna Jacobs, a radio talk-show host, who has used the airwaves to condemn the President and his social policies.

President Josiah Bartlet: You're Dr. Jenna Jacobs, right?

Jenna Jacobs: Yes, sir.

Bartlet: ...Forgive me, Dr. Jacobs. Are you an M.D.?

Jacobs: A Ph.D.

Bartlet: A Ph.D.

Jacobs: Yes, sir.

Bartlet: Psychology?

Jacobs: No, sir.

Bartlet: Theology?

Jacobs: No.

Bartlet: Social work?

Jacobs: I have a Ph.D. in English literature.

Bartlet: I'm asking because on your show, people call in for advice and you go by the name Dr. Jacobs on your show, and I didn't know if maybe your listeners were confused by that and assumed you had advanced training in psychology, theology or health care.

Jacobs: I don't believe they are confused, no, sir.

Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President, the Bible does.

Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus.

Jacobs: 18:22.

Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here.

I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?

While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?

Here's one that's really important because we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football?
Can Notre Dame?
Can West Point?

Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side-by-side?

Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?

Think about those questions, would you?

One last thing, while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends, Once More

My old friend is at it again -
Check out his latest post on the recent goings on in the church, as only he can put it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Past Is Prologue - Advent 2

A Prayer by Janet Morley
Spirit of Truth
Whom the world can never grasp,
Touch our hearts
With the shock of your coming;
Fill us with desire
For your disturbing peace;
And fire us with longing
To speak your uncontainable word
Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

What’s past is prologue. - The Tempest, Act II, Scene I

The season is here and we are wrapped up in it like the packages that are starting to amass under our trees.

There's much we could say about these days leading up to Christmas.

It's far too easy to mention how the culture has co-opted this sacred occasion with this high octane infusion of the market economy.

I don't have to tell you have ridiculous it is that stores had Christmas supplies for sale in September.

It's too easy. And in the words of a famous scientologist, it's just a bit "glib."

To focus too much on that excuses us from something that is fundamental, if not essential, to understanding the nature of God's incarnation through Jesus of Nazareth.

God's coming is "good news."

But the announcement of the prophets of the past becomes the prologue for our encounter with the Divine - in a word - get ready.

Advent is as much warning as it is anyting else. A warning that indicates the type of preparations that are necessary for each of us who claim faith.

Advent not meant to evoke the sentimentality of the season. And sure, there's plenty of that to go around.

Hey, I want to have a "holly jolly merry little silent night white Christmas" like the next guy, because I think that's what I'm supposed to have - and I'll adorn my home with decorations aplenty - I'll shop for presents for those I love, and I'll secretly long for certain things I hope to receive, but will, of course, say, "Oh, I don't know," when asked what I want. But what has become more clear to me the older I get is that I can have all of that, but if in my preparations, I've prepared the way of the Lord and made straight a highway for my God, I'll miss it and it'll miss me.

Advent - announces God's coming as an inescapable truth that should be received as good news for those who seek liberation, and warning for those who don't think they have anything from which to be liberated.

Advent is meant to shock us with the reality that the way of the Lord is being proclaimed.

And from where does the advent emerge?
Not from the marketplace
Not from the emotion
Not from the decorations

But from the desert places.

John the Baptist announces the coming of the Christ from the desert wilderness - the desert.

In effect, from the margin of where we' find ourselves spending most of our lives.

The God who shocks us when God's self is revealed will do it still. What is the mystery of faith we proclaim everytime we gather at Table?

Christ has come. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
What’s past is prologue.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
What’s past is prologue.

But we do so much to "get ready" for this season.
Gifts to buy.
Seasonal decorations to bring down, pull out, hang up.

There's a certain "spirit" we feel obliged to get into framed not on faith, but on the culturally contrived expectations that we are "to be" a certain way during this time of year.

It is self-perpetuating, and we often feel we have failed the season and each other if we have not, somehow, been like we've been before - if the repetition of holiday expectations do not rise to the romanticized notions of what once was.

The past observances of what we do and how we do it become both present and prologue and based on something other than what John calls us to.

We are called to the desert places.

We don't want to think of this time of year as anything other than the presumption that it’s supposed to be pleasant.

John calls us to prepare for the revelation of God from the desert.

But the desert is not a place to which we aspire.
Because we seek comfort...we want to feel good.

In Advent, however, the desert is precisely where we are called to go.
To hear words of repentance and preparation
To hear the announcement of God's Realm coming into being...

If you’re not going to the desert places to start this journey, you’re living too much into ways of the world and not coming from the places, the margin of your life to subvert the perversions of this season as something that is only wrapped up into “feel good” theology.

Make no mistake about it. John, from the desert, is announcing a cataclysmic collision of the Divine with all of creation – the aftershocks of which we feel across the millennia, even now in this moment.

It is powerful, it is dramatic. It is the word of the past that is prologue for our tomorrows and it proclaims the words of Isaiah, of John the Baptist, of any who, across the ages, have reminded us that all that has been, all that is, and all that will be is altered for all time by these words:
This is the nature of the God who comes in the Christ – to make level our lives a highway for our God.

It is dramatic, traumatic…it is subversive.

Mark begins his take on the Jesus story with words that to us look innocuous, but are, in fact, an announcement from the get go that something subversive was going in the person Jesus of Nazareth.

And it’s all wrapped up in this one little word – “gospel.”

Ched Myers book, Binding the Strong Man – A Political Reading of the Story of Jesus, is of immense help here.

The first hearers of that word, as Mark tells it, would be shocked. “Gospel,” euangelion, ‘glad tidings” was a technical term connoting a military victory. Roman political propaganda used the word, in addition to the understanding of Caesar as divine, to announce the coming into power of the emperor.

Of the announcement of gospel for one coming into power in Rome, one ancient inscription says: “The birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the joyful messages which have gone forth because of him.”

How does Mark begin? “The beginning of the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.*

As Isaiah did, as Mark did, as any do who announce the coming of the Lord, Mark is serving notice that Jesus is challenging the powers that be. The opening of Mark’s “glad tidings,” good news, uses the same language as Rome to announce the birth of the One who will do battle with it and prevail (Myers 123-124). The victory is won.

So, what does this mean for us?

The Advent of Christ is a good thing to be sure, but it is something that confronts and subverts the places in us too often captive to the culture, and too comfortable with our own way of being.

The coming of the Christ – the One for whom John announces that we are to prepare the way – subverts us still.

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Lover's Quarrel

When I was growing up, there would be times I'd get in trouble.

I'm sure that's hard to believe.

The thing about me that differentiated my "career as an child and adolescent" from my siblings was not that I didn't do the many things they did.

Oh, I did.

The difference was, I knew how not to get caught.

They, on the other hand, didn't give a damn who knew and usually bragged about it.

The times I got in trouble, especially as a kid, it was usually my mother who took me to task. Many were the times of hearing her say to me, as discipline was being meted out -

"Son, believe me, this hurts me more than it hurts you."

My retort was usually of the sort in which I questioned whether my mother loved me at all.

I've never forgotten her response (and, in a "circle of life" kinda way, I've used it myself more than once) - "If I didn't love you, I wouldn't care what you did."

And then she'd tell me that she knows who I am and what I could be, and that I have to reminded of that when I do something boneheaded. I've learned that character of "love" is real, and often, the most profound way of expressing it.Somewhere along the way, I think we've forgotten that love does not equal compliance or blind assent. Love doesn't even equal "like," necessarily.

Love equals the willingness to wrestle and not let go.

Seems like there's a story in the Hebrew Bible about that somewhere..hmm.

Anyway, the recent affairs of the world, of politics, of the church have given rise for a re-visitation of what love is.

One of the joys of my current appointment was the opportunity to visit with William Sloane Coffin. The story of Bill's life reads like a novel, and there's much already in print for any who would want to know about him. In my encounter with him, there was one thing that stood out as a lesson I'm striving not to learn, but to master -

Dissent does not mean disloyal. In fact, it could well be the most effective expression of love as the situation demands.

Way back in another time and place, Bill's voice was one of the first and loudest crying out about the policies perpetuating a war in Vietnam. He later stood as an architect building a network of faith and political leaders to fight the poliferation of nuclear weapons. He has been vocal on matters of social conscience for many years.

When he speaks of his disdain for policies that further divide a nation, or of plans that ran up to a war in Iraq - he could easily be labeled as one of those "bleeding hearts," who had no backbone.

But to the contrary, he loves his country. In fact, he says that he's having "a lover's quarrel" with it.

Bill Coffin loves his country. He is a patriot. But more than that, he's a prophet.He's one who, like Nathan, will stand before King, and with the righteous anger of the Lord, and not his own, proclaim, "You are the man."
Somehow my mom's words come back - "If I didn't love you, I wouldn't care what you did."

It takes a might more courage to stand up to one you love and challenge some of the assumptions your lover has about life, your relationship, the world, the faith.

It's far too easy to go alone to get along and to think that silence is golden.

From a therapeutic perspective, it's co-dependency and enabling dis-eased behavior, and it sure ain't love.

Many more voices once silent about Iraq are starting to find theirs. That's usually how things go. God knows how all this is going to come out over there.

But that we are having now the debate we should have had then about this conflict, after 2,000+ of our men and women have been killed, 15,000 wounded, and untold Iraqi citizens killed and wounded, it shows one thing more than anything else -

We love our political power more than we love each other.

And that goes for both major political parties.

Democrats, don't show up two years into the game and question why we're there. Except for Howard Dean, everybody was on board.

It's cheap.

It's tacky.

And it's too damned late.

Republicans, don't you dare act like the White House didn't have a bloodlust for war even before 9/11.

Was the intelligence faulty? You think?

Was it "spun" take make a case for war?

And does the power machine of the White House seek to discredit anyone who disagrees? You think?

In the polarization of the seat of power - the question of what you love more applies.

It also applies to the church.

My Church.

I'm United Methodist.

I believe, by God's grace, that's what I'm called to be, and it is the conduit through which I'm called to serve.

I love my church.

And I'm quarreling with it. We are too much a part of our consumerist society, and it is one of our gravest sins.

We have shown, more times than once, that we will cave into culture rather than stand beside it as an example of what community could be.

Historically, we equivocated on the issue of slavery. The blight of that sin stains the church I love still.

We, like our political counterparts, love our power positions more than we love each other. We love our theological platforms more than we love Jesus of Nazareth.

And there is no better proof of this point than the issues the currently preoccupy the Church - the war in Iraq and homosexuality.

Does God love those who are gay any differently than God loves those who are straight? Our bishops have called homosexuality "no barrier" to church membership.

Does the Church have a right to exclude anyone? Sure. It has a right to do just about anything it wants. It has a right, if not, obligation, to insure that those who represent it have met criteria of examination to suggest that they are fit to fill whatever role the church is asking such people.

But choices of who to include and who to exclude, and on what basis, bespeaks the church as a system, and do not necessarily give witness to the One in whose name it is audacious enough to claim as it's reason for being.

Our Church has said many things on a host of issues.

But so what?

How, then, do we get to a place of consensus? Do we love one another, and the Christ in us, more than we love our position?

I'm not afraid to wrestle. I used to be. Being a middle child, I just wanted us all to get along.

But I've grown out of that.

There's too much go along to get along in the world as it is.

And one of the reasons the UMC has such turmoil right now, is that the issues that preoccupy it are not those living in the abstract. They are not the issues that reside within the halls of a denominational bureaucracy.

The Council of Bishops are being criticized for bringing these conversations to the fore. I'm not among them. I applaud them, and I believe they are taking the role of leader and teacher seriously.

But that's not the real reason they're being criticized. It has a whole lot more to do with the reality that these questions must be dealt with inside the protected little micro-kingdoms we call our local churches, where most of these things seem to get shielded from the common lay man or woman.

And who ususally does the "shielding?"

The clergy.


Because we don't want to deal with it.

But these issues cannot be avoided any longer.

They live right where we are.

We all know someone who is gay.

We might even love them.

We might even call them friend.

They may even be members of our family.

We might be called to serve as their pastor.

Could it be that someone who is gay has been my pastor?

On the war - We all know someone who has been deployed to Iraq.

And too many of us know someone who didn't come home, or, if they did, they left a whole lot of themselves there.

The Church cannot ignore the reality of these issues anymore.

As is usually the case, we come at it way too late.

But the time of ferment is now.

It is here, and here we are.

What shall we do?

Are we willing to quarrel with each other as lovers trusting that if we didn't love each other, we wouldn't care, and because we love...we wrestle, and by God, we're not letting go?

I hope so.

I pray so.

But sometimes I wonder if we'll go the way we usually do rather than wrestle.

We split as lovers who will not work it out.

But that's a conscious choice.

What we can do and what we will do are not the same.

We wrestle because we love...and because we know what we can still be.

Let it be, O God.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Epilogue - Anatomy of a Conversion - Or, Kill Duke Tonight!

Duke 70
Memphis 67

Oh, it hurts so good.

Anatomy of a Conversion - Or, Kill Duke Tonight!

I'm a Tiger fan. Memphis, that is.

I wasn't always that way. As a child of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I know a bit about UK basketball, and I'll always have an appreciation for that. And, we hold a common nemesis - Louisville.

Part of my early adolescence was spent in West Tennessee, and that meant I was exposed to UT football - even went to a couple of games in Knoxville, even had an orange (God forgive me) jacket. But when I remember those days, I harken back to the Apostle Paul, who said,

"When I was a child, I thought and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away those childish ways for good."

But then, in 1981, when a senior in high school, I went to a Memphis State basketball game with some of my buddies. There I was introduced to the Mid-South Coliseum, and there I watched the Tigers hot new freshman, Keith Lee. The Tigers were playing Florida State, then a Metro Conference foe. We were sitting behind the Tigers' basket on the top level of the Coliseum.

Nationally televised game...bright lights gave the court a transfiguring glow.

And this is how my conversion happened.

Otis Jackson, point guard, bounced passed to the wing, where Phillip "Doom" Haynes took the pass looking to take his famous bank shot (guy had the best bank shot I've ever seen), but, alas, the defense wouldn't allow it.

So, he passed back to OJ (back when a guy would count that nickname as a compliment).

Bounce pass to Bobby Parks (great player who could dribble drive to the hole), but nothing doing.

So, back to OJ, at the top of the key, who faked another pass and then squared up for a long jumper.

The shot was a little too hard, so it hit the heel of the rim and bounced back high off the rim.

Out of nowhere, I see the arm. The man's elbow was at the rim. This hand grabbed the ball in mid-air and slammed it back through the hoop.

It was this tall, skinny kid from West Memphis.

Keith Lee.

But on this day - he was issuing an altar call to be a follower of the Tigers as clear as any evangelist could.

And I answered.

In the words of Dick Enberg - "Oh My!"

It's strange how some moments are so clear in memory, and others fade away, but this one is burned in me.

I had to stay in Memphis.

I had planned on attending Lambuth - you know, get out of town and do what college kids do in a small liberal arts school with a 4 to 1 female to male ratio.

But Memphis had a couple of things going in its favor . . .

. . . my first girlfriend,


the Tigers - the team with a small, but loyal following. Too often derided as "Tiger High," a wannabe when spoken of by UT or Ole Miss...MSU was for me - if, for no other reason, there would come a time when we'd get them, and maybe only once - and a lifetime of losses wouldn't hurt nearly as bad as one victory would hurt them.

"Tiger High" doesn't hurt those of us who bleed blue and gray, it motivates us to want to kick your butts!

That's me. I'm weird that way.

There's been a lot of disappointments and "wait until next year"s in my vocabulary. It's perpetual if you're a Tiger fan.

The heartbrakes are too many to name. Too many times where we've snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory, and when that happens against UT or Ole Miss, or Louisville or Cincinnati, it's just a bit much to take. The varied scandals across the years, the disappointments, the tragedies

- if Rex Dockery had not died in an plane crash in the mid-80's, the Tigers football program would be on a par with Florida State (and, no, I'm not joking when I say that). It took 20 years for us to recover.

Watching our local hero, Larry Finch, be put in an untenable position leading to his firing, sad.

Yep, too many "what ifs."

But the victories are sweet when they come.

In football -
Beating Ole Miss in Oxford - I was there.
Beating UT - I was there
Going to our first bowl in 30 years and winning it - I was there.
Watching DeAngelo run - I was there

In basketball
Keith Lee
Andre Turner
Beating Louisville in Freedom Hall while we were on probation and keeping them from going to the NCAA's - I was there.
Going to NCAA's
Watching Penny Hardaway play ball
Beating UCLA

And maybe tonight...we play Duke.

Duke, #1, storied program, Coach K. Multiple titles. Perennial contender.

A great program. No doubt. And one I often pull for in other contexts.

But I want them. I want them because of the "Duke" attitude.

In my world, I encounter a number of graduates from Duke Divinity School. And here's one thing about Duke grads, you'll never have to guess where they went to school, they'll tell you first - as if to say "I went to Duke, so, therefore, where you went to school is irrelevant.

Man, I hate that.

So boys (Tigers, that is) you're up against it tonight.

New York City.

Madison Square Garden.

Against #1.

One time, time.

Let's go.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Reign of Christ - House Rules

As hard as it is to believe, this Sunday is the last Sunday of the Christian year.

And what is the last word of the Christian year?

What is the last thing to be pronounced before we begin the story again ?

Simply this . .

The Reign of Christ is at hand. It is not a matter of what we want, prefer, or how we even think it should be.

It is.

And this Reign operates under an economy that constantly judges us...Especially those of us who fancy ourselves the faithful ones, with these words:

Matthew 25.31-46

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

The rules of the house - hospitality for the very ones you think shouldn't belong - or at the very least, those whose presence in your life breaches your comfort zones.

For in such as these - you meet Christ.

Failure to do so, you shun the very One whose name you claim.

This apocalyptic drama is often referred to in Biblical studies as "the last judgement." It carries words no doubt familiar to any of us gathered today. The simplicity of faithfulness to God is measured not in what creed we utter, our defense of the church from those we believe should have no place in it - the issue is not what you say believe, but what you are doing or not doing.

The least of these - those you think you're better than, politically, culturally, economically - or, those who you thank God you're not. If "there but for the grace of God, go I," is a part of any thought you have about someone else - it might well be the lead indicator that if you're going to meet Christ, you're going to find him in such as these.

The reality of this passage is not that judgment is lying in wait for us somewhere out there in the future...the Reign of Christ is right now, and ours is the opportunity,obligation, responsibility or judgement today in serving those pushed aside, ignored, forgotten, shunned, rejected, passed by, relegated to labels, counted as deserving their plight.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Defining Moment II - Reformation Time Again

A good rule of thumb when trying to determine if a decision on matters of faith is a good one.

If you can hear Jesus telling you, "well done, thou good and faithful servant," it's probably a good indicator of faithfulness.

If you can' might need to rethink.

So, do you hear Jesus saying "well done" to:
  • barring someone from membership because they are gay
  • refusing someone called into ministry because of their sexual identity
  • perpetuating a consumerist theology that further marginalizes the poor
  • seeking to create nation state's in our own image
  • sending our sons and daughters to die in a war seemingly framed on faulty, if not manipulated intelligence
  • torture other children of God and justify it because we're at war

When the Church protects it's polity at the expense of the Gospel, you either change the polity or the Church dies because it no longer mirrors the One they claim as their Head.

So, it's time to change our polity?


Who's with me?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Illegitimate Has No Power Over Grace

Greetings from Nashvegas...

As you might imagine, our work this week has had, as an added agenda, conversation around the recent Judicial Council ruling.

As I'm having opportunity to borrow a computer and check email (and offer this post), I'm seeing the circulation of a "closed hearts, minds and doors" email that's making the rounds. For those who feel so convicted, I have no problem with anyone being a signatory.

But I want to place some of this in context. And, having had the benefit of conversation with my own bishop, I believe I understand a bit more of what is going on.

The long and the short of it is this - the ruling is a bad ruling, in part, because of a due process issue.

Bishop Kammerer, who filed the original complaint, is seeking a review of the decision. I'm betting on a different outcome.

Having said that, I want you to know this - the Church is conflicted on this issue. No doubt about it. And yes, there will come a day of repentance necessary for our church on the issue of discrimination of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.

But that's not the only issue we need to repent on.

Despite what you've read in the newspaper, the Church is "open," at least on another paper, to receive all who will come and seek to be disciples of Jesus. That paper is the Book of Discipline, and the mandates of the Gospel to practice radical hospitality

I believe that, I will defend that...heck, our Church Consititution all but says it.

The Judicial Council makes rulings based not on theology, but on procedure. That's what they do. The bishops of the church, however, "teach" the church even as they shepherd it. The shepherd's crook is the symbol of the episcopacy, and for good reason.

Sometimes the Church needs to be guided.

Other times, prodded.

And other times, still, rapped about the head to get it's attention.

That's the role of bishops.

And they have spoken, without equivocation, on this matter. Their statement gives me hope.

The ruling last week only has the power you give it.

The witness you make by "living the gospel" over turns that which is illegitimate.

In the the church. Open your hearts, doors and minds. And if there are churches that will not accept others for any reason, you know where to tell them to find sanctuary. Oh, and by the way, and I don't think he'll mind me saying so, if there are clergy refusing membership in the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences, I know a bishop who will suspend and file charges in the blink of an eye. And if you've come to know anything about Dick Wills, you can believe that.

Because I doubt you've had access to read it, I've copied the response of the Council of Bishops on this matter and inserted it below.

Read it. Read it well. It tells who we are. Not yet perfect, to be sure. Needing to respond in grace and not fear on some issues (or at least insecurity), but genuinely open, I believe to the Spirit's leading.

Not all in the Church are open. But they never have been. And sad as that is, frankly, it's o.k. I have no trouble warning folks not to let the door hit them in the backside on the way out, because failure to be open is a hardness of heart, which means there's no room for love.

Faithfulness to our task may yet be the most effective converting ordinance for the church. Don't confuse that with silence, complicity and lack of advocacy. At Saint John's, our life together is shouting the goodness of the God of grace and the Kingdom coming into being.

Stay tuned.

This is the statement approved by the Council of Bishops on Nov. 2.

A Pastoral Letter to the People of The United Methodist Church From the Council of Bishops

By grace you have been saved through faith. Ephesians 2:8

Grace to you from Jesus Christ who calls his church to welcome all people into the community of faith as it proclaims the Gospel.

The Judicial Council, our denomination's highest judicial authority, recently issued a decision regarding a pastor's refusing a gay man's request for membership in the church. In the case, this man was invited to join the choir at the United Methodist Church in the community. As he became more active in the choir and the church, he asked to transfer his membership from another denomination to The United Methodist Church. Because he is a practicing homosexual, the pastor refused to receive him into church membership. The Judicial Council upheld the pastor's refusal of membership.

While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier. With the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church we affirm: "that God's grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons." (Para. 161g, 2004 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church)

We also affirm our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent, and the clergy on matters of ministry and membership.

The United Methodist Church is committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ with all people. We, the bishops of the Church, uphold and affirm that the General Conference has clearly spoken through the denomination's Constitution on inclusiveness and justice for all as it relates to church membership: "The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection." (Article IV, Constitution of The United Methodist Church)

We believe the ministry of the local church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is to help people accept and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We call upon all United Methodist pastors and laity to make every congregation a community of hospitality.

Nov. 2, 2005 Lake Junaluska, N.C.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Defining Moment

"Either you define the moment, or the moment defines you."

I have received emails by the boatload today wondering whether or not I'm ashamed to be United Methodist, based on the ruling of the Judicial Council reinstating a pastor who refused membership to a man because he was gay.

I'm ashamed of that ruling, but I'm not ashamed to be United Methodist, and let me tell you why.

Because the Realm of God coming into being is going to come whether there's a United Methodist Church or not. I believe there is a Divine call for the mission and ministry of the UMC. I also believe the UMC needs reform, because way too much of our energies is trapped in moralistic or self-sustaining interests, and not embodying the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Neither are we taking seriously the "method" of our faith practice as envisioned by John Wesley.

I'm not ashamed to be United Methodist, because I know what God has done and is doing through the Church.

And, because I know that those who love the Church and dream of what it can be, will not

let this "decision" define them..

will rise up and show another way...

will live out the Gospel with more zeal than ever before...

will stand with our sisters and brothers too long excised from the Body, and will welcome them in .

This is not the time to fold up shop.

The reaction to this ruling is a moment of definition. And it defines those of us who find it repulsive as much as those who think it's an answer to prayer.

Do not go quietly into that good night, my friends.

This is the moment to take up the mantle of the Gospel and show what radical, extravagant love looks like.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Lessons from Scarritt

I took United Methodist Polity in the Spring of 1988.

It was the last set of courses being offered at Scarritt College, in Nashville, in cooperation with the Divinity School at Vanderbilt.

As an institution dedicated to the teaching arts of Christian Education, it was a jewel for the Church. Money, of all things, or lack thereof, brought on, in part, by the changing climate of where the Church was moving in the field, meant that Scarritt would no longer be viable as it was. There was talk that some Japanese company was going to buy the campus and do something with it (the sentiment was that whatever it was, it wasn't going to be good - but that was based on the fear of change more than reality - plus, what are "they" going to do with "our" beautiful campus?). Thanks to the United Methodist Women, another way emerged.

Monday, I'll spend 5 days at Scarritt-Bennett Center, what used to be Scarritt College, dealing with the retrospective and evaluative component of the end of The Office of Pastoral Formation.
The OPF, a dream of Bishop Ken Carder, and directed by David Lowes Watson, sought to instill a sense of mission and purpose for the Church's clergy that pastoral leadership is expressed not through the exercise of power, but the willingness for the pastor to understand that above all else, he or she is first a disciple of Jesus Christ with a call that has been sanctioned by the Church.

I share all the back story to say this -

Only today was I reminded of that polity class. That's one of the classes a ministerial candidate must take. It talks about how the church works, what the Discipline of the church is, how to run a church, stuff like that.

For me, it was pretty boring. I figured, I knew all that anyway. But I'll never forget one thing the teacher said on the day we were talking about church membership. We were dealing with how to fill out the church roll, and you have to keep a record of who joined and when, and whether it was a Profession of Faith or a Transfer. We talked about if someone seeks to be discontinued and how to record it if someone dies. It was all just so much systemic maintenance for me.

"Oh, yeah," I thought. "Gotta keep the Man informed."

Blah, blah, blah.

But then it happened, something said I didn't know, and something I've never had need to recall, until today.

Somebody in the class asked,

"Can the preacher take anybody off the church roll?"

An interesting question. To think that one person could singularly determine who could be removed from the roll of the church.

The answer from the professor was, "No." "The minister cannot, on their own, remove anyone from the roll of the church." "But the minister can restore anyone who seeks to renew or reactivate their membership."

To be sure, our Church government provides a means by which a member may be removed from the Church. Church rolls are revised by this means.

Somebody's on the roll.

Nobody's heard from them for years.

A process is started that lasts up to three years. Their names are read at the Charge Conference...efforts are made to contact them.

If no contact is made, the names are read the next year. And then, at the third year, if no one can establish their whereabouts, they are removed.

But all it takes is one person to say, I know where they are, or I know what's going on with them, and they are restored.

Yes, there are also "chargeable offenses" that could technically get someone removed from the church. But even the provisions for that are blanketed in grace.

It always seeks restoration.

Seems like clergy ought to be focused more on restoration, wholeness and renewal, than, say, making judgments on who should be allowed to join in the first place...

Don't ya think?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Rites of Passage - A Day in the Life

We've just finished the annual birthday barrage in my family.

I now have a teenager (boy, do I). More on him in a minute.

I have a 10 year old, caught in-between. So full of himself, he longs to be 18, but still so much a boy. Caught in-between...I am a middle child. I get it more than he thinks I do.

And then there's the King of the Castle, my 4 year old, in whose realm I am privileged to dwell.

The stuff of one day in the life of my family gives me pause to consider the rites of passage that occur daily...if I'm paying attention.

My favorite Robert Fulghum book is not the one about kindergarten. Rather, it's "From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives." In this book he talks about the many rites of passage we experience in each and every relationship. Each moment, each transition carries the sacred with it, and if we're attuned to it, we recognize the gifts the little "rites" are.

They make up a life.

So, on one particular day this past month, I was especially struck by these rites of passage.

It was Andrew's (13) birthday. And he had a date.
Yep...that's right, he had date.

We participate with some other clergy families in monthly social outings, and this month, it was bowling/skating/lasertag. Andrew invited his "girlfriend" with him. We had not yet met the "girlfriend." I'd spoken to her several times on the phone.

Well, I don't know if you call "hang on a moment, and I'll get him for you," a conversation, but I've said it to her, several times, while she was on the other end of the line. (Did I miss something? When was it o.k. for girls to call guys?)

We met her, her mother and little sister before taking off on our "date." Her mom hadn't met us yet, either, and she was more than a little curious about who these people were that were going to be with their daughter for a night. Can't blame her that.

So we had that going on...

Also, that evening before we took off, Christopher (10), and Jack (4), got into a, uh...disagreement. That's not so unusual in my house. But this was different. As they stood before us to explain what happened, it was the first time that Jack waited patiently, with his hands on hips, for Christopher to give his side of the story, and then, when asked, offer his rebuttal and give his own version.

It was stunning, and he did it perfectly! I think he's going to be a lawyer.

I caught myself thinking, "Gosh, I have no more babies." Of course, that is by my own choice given the very specific thing I've done to make that no longer possible. So any longing for more or misgivings of my choice, if present, are fleeting.

But there was more going on in me. Recognizing that it was a big birthday for Andrew, and obviously a big night (at least he hoped), I was struck by the continuum of life and how it does march on. You see, if you want to know what Andrew looked like as a baby, as a kid...look at Jack.

The resemblance is amazing.

So, I'm listening to Jack, thinking about Andrew, and realizing how much we've all grown...and changed.

That's what the recognition of these rites of passage do. They cause us to reflect. They bring out the essential character of life. It is through the little thing that the big thing becomes so clear. More and more I'm convinced this is how God works.

Perhaps in each of our days there should be time to reflect upon that which has and is changing in us and use that as cause for celebration or warning for behaviors gone awry to be brought back into check before they get out of hand.

And now, the rest of the story...

As if my moment of reflection had not reached an apex, there was more to come. At the end of our evening, I had to drive Andrew's "date" home. And of course, Andrew went along, too.

Now, some of you have noticed that I'm driving a different car. I'm driving a '92 Lexus. It belonged to my in-laws, and they "made me an offer I couldn't refuse" (imagine Vito Corleone's voice here). It's a beautiful car, and I'm glad to drive it, and it's certainly not anything I could drive under any other circumstance. And let me tell you, it'll gitty up and go, too!

But, if you're a guy and you're escorting your date home, driving from Collierville to Germantown in a sweet ride is a plus. I have to confess a combination of unease and curiosity as they both climbed into the back seat, and I became chauffeur.

Being the conscientious driver that I am, I was proud of how often I needed to check my rearview mirror to make sure we were safe on the road. Precious cargo aboard, don't you know!

But wait, my work wasn't done. There was one more role to play - DJ. As soon as we got rolling, Andrew asked me to turn on some music.

But did he want the radio? No.

Did he want "his" music? No.

"Dad, why don't you turn on some of that music you like?"

"You mean my 70's Soul and R&B?" I asked, knowing all along what he was thinking.

He is my kid, after all.

So, on Andrew's 13th birthday, with his first date, the old man escorted the young couple home as Earth, Wind & Fire sang "Can't Hide Love," and "Reasons" (the live version, of course).

You have to understand, EW&F was a pivotal band in my adolescence. I have owned several of their albums since the mid-1970's, and now CD's. I learned to sing soul by imitating Maurice White (a product of Memphis). Back when my voice was really high, I could give Phillip Bailey a run for his money (not really, I just thought I could). I learned harmonies with buddies as we sang cruising in south Jackson. EW&F was among the groups comprising the soundtrack of my teenage years.

To have my kid serenading a girl to my music - while I'm in the car....

(in the words of Frank Barone) "Holy crap!"

déjà vu. . .

twilight zone. . .

rite of passage. . .

ontological shock...all rolled up into one.

That's one day in the life of my family. I'm going to bet that if you pay attention, you'll be amazed at all the little things that become huge when cast across the span of your days. These rites of passage define the transitions of our living.

In those transitions, there is God, waiting, I suspect, to see what we'll make of them.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Rise Up...Reach Out! NOW! Pentecost 23

On the occasion of our
Rise Up...Reach Out Stewarship Campaign Commitment Sunday

Pentecost 23 Matthew 22.34-46

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah?* Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit* calls him Lord, saying,44“The Lord said to my Lord,‘Sit at my right hand,until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.


There is a progression in relationships that is expressed in language.

When does an acquaintance become a friend?

When does a friend transition into that inner sanctum of a handful of people with whom you'll share the totality of your life because you know sanctuary with them?

Or, what of relationships that are of a different sort? Dare we say, the romantic side?

You have interest in someone, they in you, what language you use to refer to them...especially in the company of others? Whether it's the first time you ever had to deal with such questions, or, even if you find yourself in such a position later in life, the stress of language is the same?

What to say about her? him?

When to say it?

How to say it?

Are we dating?

Going steady?

Seeing one another?

What is this...THIS?

In such a relationship, there comes a point, if it in fact gets there, when "like" becomes "love.” It's a pretty distinct line, and we don't drop the "L" word hastily because there's really no going back once you've done it.It's not as if you can say,
"you know, I realize I said 'I love you" for the first time a couple of weeks ago, but I'm new at this, and I've reconsidered, I just like you."
Our cultural understandings of the "L" word, are wrapped in emotion..feeling, not to mention a good dose of “eros.” And whatever chemical processes occur in the brain that brings about the giddiness, euphoria and makes you want stand up and sing –

"I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow, I've the string around my finger, what a world, what a life...I'm in love!"
Yea, well that pretty much makes me sick!

Maybe that's because once the "love drug" wears off, you're left with a decision. That being, will the love I claim that no longer sits me on a cloud now be lived out from the standpoint of my commitment?

Feelings wax and wane, and too often, due to the business of life and its stresses, wane more than wax. But what do I do with that?

We come to realize, there is no love without commitment. And commitment cannot be words only, and will not be emotions only, it is love that hangs on.

Paul had it right in his letter to the Corinthians.

"[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
And he wasn’t talking about young lovers. He was talking about Christian community needing to be in covenant commitment to one another no matter what.

It’s a love that knows something of maturity. Later in that chapter Paul talks about how he was a child and thought of life from the standpoint of immaturity. But when he became an adult, he started to understand that there was something deeper at stake.
The kind of love Paul talks about in this Christian community is not contrived, neither is it based on how you "feel" about it. It is a love lived out obliged by the self-giving love of God through Jesus for the world.

But make no mistake...this love in community is one of purpose and intent.

In every relationship...there is a decision…that line of demarcation, and we are left with the decision to Rise Up..Reach Out and meet love's language with love's commitment, or turn away from it.

Your relationship with partners...

with friends...

with God...

with your church’s present vitality and prophetic future …

It’s not that much different. It really isn’t.

What is the nature of your relationship with Jesus of Nazareth expressed in the practice of your discipleship here at Saint John's? Is love's language matched with love's commitment? This is the a moment where we approach that line and make our choices.

That’s what today is.

As we prayerfully seek God’s vision for our future at St. John’s. As we long to dream God’s dream for our work to practice Gospel hospitality as radically as Jesus, it’s time for us to RISE UP…REACH OUT and do it RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!

The reading for today constitutes what Martha Greene, in her article in The Christian Century calls Jesus’ final exam. After all the tests, tricks, and his parable responses…it comes down to this. The thing that would, in the minds of his critics, concretize the quest to pursue Jesus' demise, was a recitation of that which always was, is and will be the measure of enacted faith against the emptiness of religious speak.


Love of God and love of neighbor.

How could it be that basic? How could over 600 commandments from the Torah be reduced to these two? The radical word of Jesus to those who confronted him, a word that at once confounded and enraged them, was that the son of David is the fulfillment of these words and unless at least the love of God and love neighbor are paramount, the rest is just religious "busy work."

Love of God and love of neighbor. Love of God expressed through love of neighbor, loving the "other," whoever that is, as if they were your own kin. This is not a matter of emotion, or warm fuzzies. No, the “love” to which the Scripture refers is of a specific sort.
"In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut.6.5 demands of us, but rather, stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.” Matthew Hare (Matthew Interpretation Commentary)
This is what defines us...this is who we are. Our quest to live as disciples of Jesus is measured not by our words, or our emotions, but our “stubborn, unwavering commitment” to those things that Jesus said matters most, and making those things the central planks of our gathered community’s agenda, and, by faith, doing everything within us to rise up..reach out, and meet those challenges.

We’re endeavoring to do that and be that here at Saint John’s for no other reason than that we see ourselves as Christian community seeking to be made perfect in Love.

And if this is who we are, sisters and brothers, it’s time to Rise Up…Reach Out and take the next steps into the community of faith God dreams for us. If we dare.

If we claim this as the central theme of our being, what does that look like here?
What is Saint John’s?

Of all the places we could associate ourselves, even practice our discipleship, why here? And why are we called to commit our loving commitment to this our common quests?

It is simply this…

We will not be the largest church on the block, but there will be no equal in our faith commitment to live out the Gospel and to makes it precepts the authentic expression of what brings us into community.

We will not build a gym, we will not be all things to all people.

But we will be the place where all those who’ve tasted the mega-church and found it bitter will find home.

We will be the place that needs the totality of your presence.

We will be the place that needs the maximum of your gifts.

We will be the place where those disenchanted, disenfranchised, and disinherited by it will hear the word of the Lord proclaim, “I have called you by name, and you are mine.”

We will be the place of new life. The place of the butterfly. Resurrection. The place that announces that what we’ve been is not nearly as important as what you’re becoming.

We will be a people continually gathered around the Sacramental life. Our frequent practice of the Eucharist will be for us but a metaphorical expression of the loving servanthood we take upon ourselves.

We will be the place where your desire to love and God your neighbor is the label you wear that matters most. All other labels will subject you to no harm here, except that we know that in Christ Jesus that we are healed and made one.

We will be the place where, when the Gospel challenges are placed before us…we will Rise Up…Reach Out to meet them.


Not unlike Jesus being tested once more by the principalities and powers of the religious order of his day, so too, are we. There’s far too much in the politics of the religious establishment that would prefer that we just “go away.”

But we will not…when faced with the questions of our future, we will RISEUP..REACH OUT!

As we face the financial realities of our congregation and it’s mission to be more than we are, to invest in Gods work in this corner through faith by creating the ministries now that we aspire to tomorrow..we will RISE UP… REACH OUT!

And we do this not because we are great, but because we’ve come to know that Grace is amazing, love is real…and this day, everyday, we will RISE UP…REACH OUT! There is no real "love" without commitment. And as you live out this great commandment, as we live it out together, the time to make that commitment has come.We are called to love God and love our neighbor …let’s rise up…reach out and do it. NOW!

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.